06/04/2003 11:00PM

Funny Cide good for casinos after all

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The legend of the Sackatoga Stable keeps getting better and better. Middle-aged high school friends form a syndicate with an investment of $5,000 each and buy the right horse at the right time. They have a trainer who has never saddled a Kentucky Derby runner and a jockey without a Derby win.

Yet they not only win the Derby but the Preakness, too. And if Funny Cide completes his sweep of the Triple Crown this Saturday in the Belmont Stakes, his owners will collect a $5 million bonus from Visa.

But even if their star comes up short, they have already secured their own bonus courtesy of the race books in Las Vegas.

Call it the $100,000 Las Vegas Future Book Bonus.

There are no nominations or supplemental fees. Any owner or trainer with the guts to back their own horse is eligible.

In this past Monday's The New York Times, Sackatoga Stable primary owner Jack Knowlton and his partners discussed making $2,000 in Kentucky Derby future book wagers last December, ranging from 40-1 to 150-1. The story said the payoffs will exceed $100,000.

John Avello, director of race and sports at the Bally's and Paris casino resorts on the Strip, who is normally forbidden from talking about individual customer's betting habits, said, "If he's willing to tell The New York Times that he made those wagers, then I can confirm that we took some bets here.

"I never actually saw [Knowlton], but I remember the bet being made. I got a call from a supervisor at Paris. He said a gentleman wanted to make some limit bets on Funny Cide. I said 'Funny Cide? The New York-bred? The gelding?' He told my supervisor he was one of the owners."

Avello wasn't able to disclose the number of bets or the dollar amounts, but would confirm the wagers put the casino in a losing situation on Funny Cide.

Betting on your own horse is a time-honored tradition, and industry insiders in Las Vegas think it's great when a horse's connections are willing to show their support at the betting windows. Over the years, many stories have circulated about other high-profile horsemen making nice scores in the future books.

"That's a wonderful addition to the Funny Cide story," said Vinny Magliulo, former director of race and sports at Caesars Palace who now works for the Las Vegas Dissemination Company, the pari-mutuel wagering hub for Nevada race books. "When an owner puts a bet on his own horse, he's putting his money where his oats are."

Frank Minervini, who runs the future books for Coast Casinos, said he doesn't think Knowlton & Co. bet into his futures, but only because he had dropped Funny Cide's odds before they came to town.

"I started hearing about Funny Cide last summer," Minervini said. "The buzz from my sources back East said this was one of the best New York-breds ever. He ran very well sprinting and I remember him having a 100 Beyer, and no other 2-year-old was doing that at that time. When I rode [as a jockey] in Maryland in the 1970's, I remember Barclay Tagg and he is a very good horseman. I said, 'This horse has a shot.' I had to drop his odds so I didn't have any exposure.

"Then we had a bettor come in last fall. Funny Cide was laid up with an infection and not running, but he wanted to bet the limit at 80-1. I approved the bet and didn't lower the odds, so he bet it again. I asked the guy if he wouldn't mind telling me why he liked the horse. He said he had been in a restaurant in New York and heard a bunch of guys at the next table talking about how Funny Cide was going to win the Kentucky Derby. Since he was going to Vegas, he said he decided to take a shot."

Minervini said he kept Funny Cide's odds low, even after he lost a few races.

"In the Holy Bull [at Gulfstream Jan. 18], he had no chance. He got left and then went way wide in the first turn and again in the second turn. I'm telling you he lost 15 lengths; I'm not exaggerating. And he still only lost by 6 1/2 lengths, so I didn't lower his odds.

"He ran well in the Louisiana Derby, finishing third to Peace Rules, and by then the only question was if he could get the [Derby] distance. Then he lost to Empire Maker in the Wood, who was supposed to beat him, but he was the second-best horse in the race, so he was legitimate. Other books raised his odds after those losses, but I held firm. I heard the owners came and bet and bet him some more around town, but our odds were probably too low for them."

While Minervini might have avoided a loss on the Kentucky Derby futures, he said he was hit early and often on Funny Cide to win the Triple Crows at odds of 200-1 and 150-1. He's not sure if any of Funny Cide's connections made those wagers.

"If Funny Cide wins the Triple Crown, we'll give back all of our Derby winnings and then some," Minervini said. "But we'll be happy. It's good for racing."

Avello is also sweating the Belmont result. Before the Derby, he had a prop that asked "Will there be a Triple Crown winner?" The "yes" opened at +500 (5-1) but most people had an optimistic view and bet it down to +375 before it closed at +400. A lot of those bettors also pounded Empire Maker to win the Triple Crown.

"I was worried about Empire Maker," Avello said. "At the time, I wasn't worried about Funny Cide . . . but I am now."

Consequently, a lot of those bettors who were banking on Empire Maker are now probably some of Funny Cide's biggest fans.

But Avello echoed Minervini's sentiments.

"We're in the business of taking bets," he said, "and sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. It's all part of the game. The Funny Cide story is a classic. It what makes horse racing great."

What neither of them mentioned is that the race books will be packed this weekend and a huge handle on Belmont Day should help make up for losses in the future books.

Two years ago, when Monarchos had won the Derby but was knocked off by Point Given in the Preakness, there was only $1,238,500 bet in Nevada on a Belmont race that didn't involve a Triple Crown chance. Last year, with War Emblem taking the Derby and Preakness, there was $1,965,500 wagered in the state.

In addition, stories about people cashing big with future bets is the best free advertising the casinos could hope for. It's the same reason you always see pictures of jackpot winners holding wads of cash to lure gamblers to think they could be the next big winner.

The casinos don't put pictures of losers in their ads.